From Abu Ghraib to Anti-War: An Interrogator’s Story

By James Stairs

Sitting outside a busy pub in central Dublin, Joshua Casteel looks like any other 26-year-old you might meet. The unruly haircut, the random patches of facial hair and the laid back smile blend him effortlessly into the evening bustle. The only indication that his story might differ from most is the desert-camouflage army jacket, United States flag patched to its shoulder, bundled under the table and the black and white Iraq Veterans Against the War t-shirt he wears.

The truth is, Casteel’s story does differ. It’s a story that winds its way from the churches of the U.S. Midwest to the interrogation rooms of Iraq, from the confusion of a crisis of conscience to the courage to stand by a choice he knew many would not understand. It unfolds amidst the hot rhetoric of anti-war rallies, the dispassionate, distanced analysis of academia and that often-lonely place inhabited by those who exist both in the world of the warrior and that of the thinker.

The pub is around the corner from a dispersing public meeting discussing the ethics of torture in war. As the people move towards us, Casteel, the gathering’s keynote speaker, knows what is coming. He knows they will see him. He knows they will stop. He knows they have questions. He knows that because he has taken his story public, he has a duty to give his time.

Several people stop to shake his hand and the questions begin. A few of them are thoughtful and respectful, most aren’t even questions, more fringe conspiracy theories, copped from chatrooms and desperate for validation. Casteel smiles, exudes Midwest charm and politely answers any and all queries thrown his way. “What was it like there?” the lucid ones ask. “Did it happen like they said?”

You know what they really want to ask: “Were you a part of it?” and “Did you see it happen?”

“It” is the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where Casteel worked as an interrogator between June 2004 and January 2005.

“It” is also the torture of captured prisoners of war that came to light in 2003 and served to galvanize opposition to the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.

When reporter Seymour Hersch’s article in the New Yorker exposed the abuse at the prison, Casteel was in special training with the U.S. Army, intensively studying both Arabic and the techniques used to extract information from prisoners caught up in the world’s most hostile environment.

The New Yorker piece threw now-familiar images into everyone’s heads. A hooded prisoner standing on a block, covered in a black sheet, electrodes attached to his outstretched hands. A terrified man, naked and just out of reach of a snarling dog. Lyndie England pointing to the genitals of a line of detained men, cigarette dangling, cracked grin.

As the images spread, Abu Ghraib became a symbol that enraged and emboldened public opposition to the war and ignited a major public relations disaster for those charged with selling the campaign. Public promises were made. Things would change, they said.

Months later Casteel would be on the ground in Iraq, part of the crew brought in to clean up the image of the prison, assigned to a team responsible for interrogating “foreign fighters and terrorists.”

By the time he arrived, the open abuse on-site had stopped. “The world was watching us,” he explained. “We were told to stick to procedure and to be on our best behaviour.”

Despite the directive he soon realized that the torture of detainees hadn’t stopped at all. It had simply been moved off the premises. He saw the effects of torture on the people arriving at his interrogation room. Stories flew about of how and where it continued to happen. The action took place out of sight- makeshift off-site interrogation rooms and by extracting as much information as possible while taking the long route during prisoner transfers.

At the prison, the new way of doing things was an open secret and it didn’t sit well with him. He knew it was happening but, because he never actually saw it happen, he couldn’t do anything to change it. His unrest grew and he eventually decided that he had to leave the military, unwilling to be complicit and increasingly unwilling to stay silent about what he had seen and heard.

Today, Casteel is a vocal opponent of the campaign, active on the board of directors of Iraq Veterans Against the War, driven by a dual conviction that torture is wrong and that the military culture of the United States, while broken, is not beyond repair.

Casteel enlisted at seventeen. Born into an evangelical Christian military family in Iowa City, Iowa, the army was always on his radar. When he was eligible, he enrolled at the West Point military academy in Annapolis, Maryland, his future never a question,

Arriving at West Point he was surprised that he almost immediately began doubting his decision. The strict rules and lack of free time conflicted with his growing interests in a liberal education. He wanted to study literature, philosophy and theatre but there isn’t much time for that when you’re training to become a soldier.

As time passed, his unease grew. “It got to a point where I was saying to myself ‘if you don’t get out, you’re going to do something foolish,’” he said. He still believed that military service was a worthwhile endeavour but was no longer sure that it was his path to take.

He came to a best-of-both-worlds solution; he left West Point but stayed on his ROTC army scholarship, enrolling at the University of Iowa, continuing his military education concurrent with his pursuit of a liberal arts degree. He knew there would be consequences. At year’s end West Point awarded him a medal for proficiency but he was the only member of his class not to be promoted.

“My unit commander told me that he thought that I was a very capable soldier but that he thought that I lacked dedication to the concept of officer training,” he laughed.

Another officer suggested that he consider dropping out of the army altogether because his heart didn’t appear to be into being a soldier. Determined to see it though, Casteel tried again to combine his competing ambitions.

He transferred to a small college in Colorado. There, he formed a close bond with a professor who also began to urge Casteel to leave the army, convinced that he could better serve outside the military.

“Hearing the same message two years in a row, made me think that they might be right,” he said.

Casteel withdrew from his scholarship and returned to the University of Iowa, arranging a semester abroad at Oxford University.

At Oxford, the friends he made opened his eyes to a new way of thinking. He found the writings of the pacifist theologian Stanley Hauerwas and devoured the material. The ideas he encountered at Oxford would shape the decisions that would mark his future.

Hauerwas argues that the role of the faithful is to empathize and suffer with the afflicted, not to try and control them in the name of conquest. The ideas resonated and he began to explore ways to build a life around them but global events intervened and changed the script.

Watching the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001 and standing by as the American response unfolded, Casteel felt compelled to rejoin the army. Despite his burgeoning pacifism, he had the training and duty to contribute. He couldn’t just stand by and do nothing.

“I was thinking about it a lot during that time. I was living a cushy little life, going to college and drinking lattes,” he said. “All the while, I had friends getting sent overseas.”

He reasoned that he would likely be compelled to serve anyways because of his status on the army’s inactive list, so he re-enlisted.

Back in the army, he decided to become a linguist and study Arabic. “The only job that guaranteed me language training was as an interrogator. I didn’t like that idea so much, I’d seen movies like Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now... you know, visions of the swinging lamp,” he laughed.

“My thinking at the time was that it’s better to have someone on the ground who could at least offer some objectivity to what was going on.”

He attended interrogation training in 2002 and spent a year-and-half studying Arabic at the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, California.

“Interrogator school was very encouraging for me at the beginning because of how much they stressed the Geneva Conventions,” he says. “The easiest way to fail a training exercise was to break the Conventions’ rules.”

But as he went through training, a darker side to the exercise began to emerge. “I began to experience the rage that is associated with being an agent of justice,” he admitted. “In an interrogation, if the file you have says the person is a killer, there’s no disputing it. The file is never wrong.”

Interrogation instruction lasted for 16 weeks and Casteel said he began to notice himself changing. In exercises he became more aggressive. “The rage I felt was new to me,” he said. “While the law can keep you from performing certain actions, it doesn’t keep you from hating.”

During his training, Iraq was invaded and Casteel watched the fall of Baghdad with one of his language instructors who happened to be Iraqi and who had family in the capital.

“My consciousness was going back and forth,” he said. “I was thinking ‘this is madness, so many of my friends are pacifists and I’m getting ready to bomb people.’ On the other hand, I was thinking that I may as well go all the way, maybe do some good.”

Despite his resolve, he had a last-minute crisis of conscience about interrogation and applied to become an army chaplain. He was accepted to the U.S. Army Seminary but fate intervened and he was deployed to Iraq before he could enroll.

In June 2004, Casteel landed in Iraq and was assigned to the Abu Ghraib interrogation unit. He soon discovered that the reality of life in a war zone was very different from discussing ideas in a classroom. There was far less talk about the Geneva Conventions in the field than there was in Monterrey.

He was immediately thrown into the mix. Soldiers on patrol, he explained, would go into the field and round up suspects to be questioned. When a person was identified and detained, anyone even associated with the suspect was taken for interrogation.

The protocols were straightforward; make the arrest, perform a body search to make sure the person is not armed, confiscate anything that could provide intelligence and then “rush them to the rear,” or separate them from the soldiers who detained them.

These rules were designed, Casteel explained, to make sure that the process remained as efficient and effective as was possible, despite the high pressure environment.

Casteel would soon learn that, in the midst of war, rules can become fluid. He noticed that the protocols weren’t always followed. He also noticed that, as procedure broke down, signs of prisoner abuse increased. He wasn’t seeing torture but he knew, without a doubt, that it was happening.

“The biggest problem with torture in Iraq,” he explained, “ is what happens in the first 72 hours after a person is arrested. The detainees were not being rushed to the rear. The reality is that the arresting soldiers are often upset at the circumstances of the capture and can act on their heightened emotions. They also don’t have access to the intelligence files that we have so they don’t know how many people are actually innocent of any wrongdoing.

“To them, it’s just an Arab wearing a head-wrap and holding a gun and that person is obviously a terrorist. There are terrible things happening in Iraq because basic information isn’t getting into the right hands,” he added.

At the prison, Casteel was involved in over a hundred interrogations. He insists he never saw someone being tortured first-hand. He did, however, see people who had been abused prior to coming to the prison. He is sure that he wasn’t the only one who saw what he did and that, while he was assigned to the facility, there was never an official investigation when detainees said they had been abused. The entire system, he argued, dissuaded even acknowledging that torture was possible.

“I didn’t even know the proper procedure for investigating torture,” he said. “The assumption was that everyone would claim that they were tortured to evade questioning. We didn’t take the claims seriously at first—it wasn’t until I started to realize that 95% of the people I was talking to were innocent that I started to question the people coming in with bruises.”

The majority of people that were brought in, he said, were taxi drivers, families of suspects, former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party and veterans of previous Iraq wars.

In the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib scandal, he explained, mobile units and temporary interrogation facilities manned by special forces and private military contractors became more used so that if an incident arose, it would be harder to track.

“The torture was continuing,” he said. “People talked openly about induced hypothermia, stress positions and hotboxes [subjecting prisoners to extreme heat and humidity.]

But none of the talk was ever on the record.

“There are two types of culture in the military,” he explained. “There is a policy culture and a combat culture.”

Many of the policy people in the military genuinely care about ideals, he continued. The combat people deal with the realities on the ground and are often forced to change the script to get results and stay safe.

“The policy culture hold that torture generally gets bad intelligence. They understand that if torture is used there is a likelihood that Americans themselves will get tortured if they are captured.

The combat culture works under extreme conditions, gets shot at, gets wounded and killed. It’s harder for them to think rationally,” he argued.

At the prison, Casteel found himself torn between the two halves of military culture. He began to obsess over what he should do. Eventually he came to the conclusion that it didn’t matter which camp he was a part of because one truth remained constant: “If you’re being tortured, you’ll say anything to make the pain stop.”

He found himself uneasy with his role in the process and waged an internal struggle, trying to figure out what to do about it until one particular interrogation, as if by design, shocked him into action and precipitated a radical change.

Casteel was assigned to interrogate a young Saudi fighter. The man had come to Iraq to fight Jihad. Casteel asked him why he had come to Iraq to kill people, the prisoner asked Casteel why he had done the same. The two discussed religion and ethics. The prisoner tried to convert him to Islam, Casteel came from an evangelical background, he understood where the prisoner was coming from. The prisoner asked him why he didn’t “turn the other cheek,” why he didn’t “love thy enemy.” Casteel had no answer.

The exchange left him shaken. He left the room and immediately informed his superiors that he had lost objectivity, that he empathized with the prisoner and that he couldn’t interrogate him further.

The incident, he said, was a watershed moment. He could no longer be complicit in a process that he knew was wrong. He decided to write a letter, declaring himself to be a conscientious objector. He wrote on lunch breaks during his eight month field deployment. It was accepted.

Weeks later he left Iraq on a scheduled break, knowing that he wouldn’t return as he would be granted an honourable discharge within the month. Casteel came home with mixed emotions. Glad to be alive, not sure what he had done. His heart loyal to the soldiers who still served, his brain urging him to fight what he saw as injustice.

The transition to a non-military life was far from a smooth process. He found his bitterness growing by the day. “All soldiers go through civilian disdain when they come home.” he said, “’You don’t know what we’ve been through. You don’t know how we’ve put our lives on the line for a bullshit cause.’”

His parents were at the airport to meet him. “I had a hard time smiling, they were happy to see me but all I could think was ‘what have I done for the last eight months of my life?’ I’ve made the world a more dangerous place, I’ve terrorized innocent poor people and folks at home want to call me a hero and pin awards on my chest.”

He was awarded a medal for his service. He gave it to a friend who hadn’t received one. That night he got drunk with some fellow returnees and they pinned their medals onto a cardboard cut-out of George W. Bush.

Settling back into normal life, Casteel felt the need to enact radical change. He left evangelism and converted to Catholicism. He enrolled in the Iowa Playwright’s Workshop and started a Master’s of Fine Arts focused on playwriting and non-fiction at the University of Iowa. He also began to put his ideas into words. He is currently writing an autobiography and several works of fiction.

He has also joined the lecture circuit, telling anyone who will listen about the realities of life as a soldier and the problem of the use of torture in conflict. He works actively with several veteran’s groups.

One group in particular spoke to him and the t-shirt he sports at the Dublin pub reflects his allegiance: Iraq Veterans Against the War is made up of retired and active duty soldiers. It was founded in 2004 and has chapters in 32 states, in Canada and around the world. The group calls for a withdrawal from Iraq, for reparations to be paid to the Iraqi people and for better treatment for returning soldiers.

Casteel currently chairs the group’s religious dialogue committee, trying to bridge the gap between people of faith and the anti-war movement. He knows that some, both in the military and outside it, will never appreciate nor accept his message.

He’s prepared to live with that, he explained, as long as he holds the belief that solutions to problems come from those who stand for an ideal and refuse to back down, no matter the consequence.



Postscript: I met Joshua Casteel in Dublin several years ago. We only spent a short time together but we really got along and I always remembered both his courage and his story. I looked him up this morning with the intent of emailing him to see if he ever saw this piece. I was sad to learn that he had passed away from lung cancer a few years ago at the age of 32 and that he had linked his illness to toxicity exposure during his time in Iraq. The news shook me as I believe strongly that health damage resulting from the toxic remnants of war is one of the world’s great under-reported tragedies.

Kenya’s Slums Isolated Amidst Daily Violence


By James Stairs

Nairobi-  Violence in Nairobi’s volatile Mathare slum continued into a third week Monday with Kenyan authorities concerned that they may have already lost control of an already chaotic situation.

The densely-packed slum, which sits close to the city centre, has the reputation of being one of the most volatile and dangerous communities in the Kenyan capital.

A rabbit warren of poverty, Mathare is the heartland of the feared Mungiki criminal gang who have brutally waged war for control Nairobi’s poorest communities for almost twenty years.

Clashes in the slums between police and stone-throwing rioters have been a daily occurrence ever since the East African country descended in to chaos after the disputed December 27 elections.

On the Juja Road, the main artery passing the top of the slum, cars are forced in to rapid and dramatic U-turns in the street to avoiding being caught up in the riots. Flaming tire and concrete roadblocks appear in seconds, trapping traffic. Once the traps are set, witnesses say, cars are over-run by dozens of coordinated attackers. In most cases, locals report, drivers have no choice but to flee, leaving everything behind to be taken by the mob.

In front of the Moi Air Force base on the Juja road, tucked between the military base, the road and a tall stone wall sits an impromptu internal displacement camp. The tiny triangle of land, approximately 50 metres on each side, has become a refuge to an as many as 1500 people who have fled the violence that has consumed the communities below.

In scenes that have become commonplace across Kenya, inter-ethnic clashes have forced many Mathare residents from their homes and, with nowhere else to turn, into informal refugee camps. The neighbourhood attacks, residents say, are violent and come without warning. Most people are forced to flee within minutes of the first skirmishes.

In response, most communities have formed self-protection units where local men arm themselves to protect themselves and their neighbours. Even with the extra security, residents report, communities are usually easily over-run by the mobs.

As many as one million Kenyans have fled their homes in the past three weeks. Hundreds of internal displacement camps have sprung up around the country. Aid organizations describe chaotic situations where they have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of refugees. They also report that most of their resources have been directed to the massive camps in communities like Nakuru, Eldoret and Kisumu, in the country’s Western regions.

Most of the smaller, informal camps report going days, and in some cases weeks, without receiving any government or humanitarian assistance.

At the Juja Road camp, Mary Mwangiri, 46, sits in a group with members of her family. “We have been here for weeks,” she quietly says, “Our houses have burned and no one here knows when we can leave. We’d like to go home but we can’t know if it’s safe.”

Mwangiri says her home was destroyed on New Year’s Eve after mobs swept through the slum, burning homes and looting possessions. There was no choice but to run, she explained. “This is all I could take,” motioning to a small pile of furniture and cooking gear.

Humanitarian groups have visited the tiny camp but, with resources stretched and attention elsewhere, visits have been sporadic. Every day, Mwangiri says, the residents of the camp hope that they have not been forgotten. They want the humanitarian community to know that even the smallest things would help.

“We are waiting for [aid organizations] to come with food, not only so we can eat but so that we can ask them for the cartons they bring the food in to sleep on,” she says, motioning to a bare patch of dirt next to her. “Its much better than sleeping on the ground.”

On the other side of the camp the story is very much the same. Joseph Gachia, 36, has been at the camp since December 29 when, he says, the mobs over-ran his neighbourhood. “There were more than 50 of them,” he said. “They had pangas (machetes) and were chanting slogans. I ran away with my family and have been here since,” he said, motioning to a small pile of furniture covered with a tarpaulin.

In the absence of Kenyan or international assistance, the task of administrating the camp has fallen to three local women. Tina Odour, 45, Lucy-Ann Waweru, 47 and Pastor Serah Mkala, 55, have been organizing the camp as best they can since it was spontaneously formed in the aftermath of the disputed election.

They spend their days trying to document the camp residents, identifying those most in need and hoping that the violence outside doesn’t find its way into the camp. Numbers are hard to pin down as people come and go but Odour estimates that anywhere between 1000-1500 people, including more than 200 children are staying at the camp at any one time. More drop in when the food shipments arrive.

Over 20 in the camp are HIV positive, she adds, and, because of a clinic across the road the patients still have access to anti-retroviral medicines, but without enough food, the toxicity of the drugs can lead to other health issues.

Because there are no regular relief shipments, the women are forced to scramble to keep people fed. Local church and community organizations have tried to fill the gaps between official and humanitarian visits.

When the shipments do come, Gachia says, they are often disrupted by attacks from the slum below. During a World Food Program shipment days earlier, he says, a group of men arrived and stole the food being delivered. In the chaos that unfolded, he says, a man in the camp had his arm chopped off with a machete, a story confirmed by a manager at Nairobi’s Kenyatta National Hospital.

In addition to a precarious security, shelter has become a major concern for the residents of the informal camp. Throughout the week, heavy downpours have drenched the region. With no tents and few tarpaulins, many residents are forced to simply endure the rain.

The results have been tragic. Two babies, both under one-year old, died Wednesday in the camp. Both succumbed to exposure, Waweru explains, their parents unable to shelter them from the rain and cold.

The camp was soaked every night during the past week,” Waweru said Thursday at the camp. “We are so worried that people are getting sick.”

The road bordering the camp presents another danger. Almost every day, Odour explains, protesters, angry with what they say is the government’s lack of action on behalf the residents of the slums, try to block off the Juja road. As has become commonplace across the country, police, who maintain a heavy presence in the area, aggressively disperse the crowds by releasing barrages of tear gas.

On the Juja Road Wednesday, as police fired tear gas canisters at the rioters, the clouds of noxious gas, which, when inhaled, burn a person’s nose and eyes, drifted in to the camp. Pastor Sareh explains that the people in the camp, afraid to run in to the road and into the riots, panicked. “People were running around, trying to get away from the gas but they had no where to run.”

The back boundary of the camp is the fortified gates of the Air Force base, manned by armed soldiers, a tall wall runs along one side and the Juja road, where the gas was coming from is at the front. Boxed in, the terrified refugees were forced to run through the riot on the street to relative safety on the other side of the road.

Throughout the ordeal, soldiers at the Moi Air Force base have stood by as the misery of the camp unfolds in front of them. On Thursday, a commander at the base declined to comment as to why his soldiers have not intervened to help the camp on their doorstep.

The lack of engagement by Kenya’s government is a constant topic of discussion around the country. Everyone agrees that the nation was surprised by the scope and severity of the post-election violence. Those who support the government and President Mwai Kibaki argue that the country’s resources have been overwhelmed by the events and are struggling to keep up. Many who support Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement offer a darker view: Many slums are opposition strongholds, they argue, why would a government help people who are trying to remove them from office?

Until there is a solution to the crisis, Odour argues, the focus of daily life in the camps and slums will be less about politics and more about survival. She hopes the crisis will end soon but is guarded in her expectations. “I don’t think that the politicians on both sides even know that we are here,” she says, a hint of sadness inflecting her voice.

On the Juja road, Cosmos Nga Nga, 27, and Benson Kamau, 24, local activists with friends at the camp, echo Odour’s frustration.

“Who is suffering here?” asks Nga Nga, who, with Kamau helps produce a local community television station called SlumTV.

“The poor and only the poor. Rich people are not having their homes burned,” he says, his anger noticeable but controlled. “Why would they care? They’ve already either stocked up on food or booked their airplane tickets out of here.”

Snapshots from the Road

As a journalist I’ve seen some strange things in the places I’ve been. In truth, it’s my job to see them. No matter where you are, the script never really changes. I’ve always believed that a big part of quality journalism, that one thing that separates the great from the mediocre, lies in the people who notice the details and who are willing to go just a little farther, or risk a little more, to find them.

The search for the things that explain a place can be a strange ride. There are few rules. Sometimes you just have to jump in and head down an unexpected road with no real idea where you are actually going. Occasionally the road will turn out to be a dead end but more often than not, if you trust your instincts, things just start to happen and your understanding grows. I’ve found that if you just keep moving ahead, people find you, they take you in and they show you their world. For anyone telling stories for money, the pressure is real- everyone else has “advice”, missteps get amplified, very few people know just how hard it is to find and deliver a great story. Most of us have learned the hard way that the worst thing that can happen is to get stuck in the mud. You have to keep moving and you have to keep looking. If you stay in one place, stories get harder to find.

I constantly remind myself that I’ve been lucky to get to tell some important stories, to explain things that matter to a lot of people who might not have the opportunity to see them firsthand. That said, the gift of access can be frustrating at times for the simple reason that there is just not enough time or space to tell all the stories. The simple reality is that everything in journalism is condensed- it’s only the most important things that get said out loud. What happens on the journey to the story (or the journey home or the things that unfold when you’re there) are usually never told. To me, and I know to many of the best people I’ve worked with, these are the fun things, the things we tell each other at the end of the day as we fight off exhaustion just enough to have a drink and talk about the day. It’s what builds the intense loyalty and camaraderie that few others understand.

This collection isn’t about war stories. In the places I’ve been I have, at times, seen needless death, violence, desperation, anger, disease, hopelessness, terrible injury and revenge. While it’s true that you can never really forget the ugly things, you’re a fool to let them bog you down. In fact, if you are honest with yourself, you have to use them as fuel to push forward, even if it isolates you from your everyday world. If you don’t, there’s really no point in having gone in the first place. With this in mind, when I look back, I try to remember the humour, the weirdness, the kindness and the amazing people I’ve met.

At their core, these snapshots are about the journeys we all take. They are not just about me, they are descriptions of a collective experience. In every one, someone taught me something and hopefully made me better. Those who know me know that I’m not exactly comfortable with self-promotion so this is also going to be the only place where I actually write about myself. I hope you enjoy them and that they, at the very least, offer a little context about some pretty interesting people and places.


 Stories from the Road:

DRC: My cash-flow depleted by paying bribes every time I had to renew my visa, I had to find a new way. At my Rwandan hotel I made a plan. That morning I went into the local market and bought a live chicken. The plan was to leave it as an offering and hope they’d demand less to let me in. I tucked the chicken under my arm and took a motorcycle to the border. At the border I walked into the office and casually tied its leg to the immigration officer’s desk. Looking at the bird, and then me, the border guard couldn’t control her laughter as she stamped my passport, neglecting to charge any visa fees.

Haiti: After spending several hours behind the table of a street stall in the Delmas 18 neighbourhood of Port au Prince, the ladies who owned the kiosk said I was a much nicer blanc (white person) than all the others and invited me back. I was apparently good for business.

South Africa: Outside a Zulu migrant hostel in Dobsonville, Soweto during the country’s xenophobic riots, a friend introduced me to the people he lived with so that I could get a better understanding of why foreign workers were being targeted and attacked in the townships. A group grew around us as we spoke. After a while, two things became clear : 1) outside of leaving, there was nothing the migrant workers could say or do that would change minds and 2) the people in the group I was talking to were actively involved in the violence.

I went into the township feeling upbeat and ambitious. I left defeated and depressed.

DRC: The old man held a large kitchen knife in each hand as he crouched over a slum fire in the middle of the back alley. He caught my eye by how deftly he carved the bird he cooked. Exhausted, I raised my camera. “It’s a nice shot,” I rationalized, my hubris at its peak. He raised his head and saw me. Pure rage flew from his shattered mind. He charged, knives slashing the air at face level. With no time to even turn around, I ran backwards. Nothing in a slum is ever as it seems and it’s best to never forget where you are.

Rwanda: Wandering in the bowels of the Rwandan Parliament after a late night interview with the deputy president, I realized that I was completely lost. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a haunted house before but if I had to imagine what it feels like, it is that.

Haiti: After covering election day across Port au Prince, a colleague and I decided to walk back to our guest house on the other side of the city. As we walked through the hot night, the city was a tinderbox. With the result from the day’s vote still not announced, people lingered in the streets. A theme emerged: if the election is stolen, tomorrow the country will burn.

South Africa: In Johannesburg, I mitigated the threat of carjacking by always having cans of Coke in my car and giving them out at traffic stops. In return, the hawkers on the corners swore to me that no one would touch me or my car. I drove around those areas with open windows.

Rwanda: After getting a tip from a man at my Gisenyi hotel, I showed up on the back of a motorcycle into the middle of Rwanda’s secret late-night invasion of North Kivu. Absurdly clad in shorts, flip-flops and a green motorcycle helmet, my driver drove right in to the middle of the staging area. Heavily-armed soldiers met my arrival with surprise. I hopped off the bike to ask some questions. As I did that, my driver, realizing that maybe he shouldn’t be there, beat a hasty exit. I immediately saw that no one was going to answer questions and that I had no escape route so I started to backtrack as quickly as I could. Luckily, the soldiers couldn’t figure out what I was doing there and, after some small talk about the nightlife in Nairobi, they let me slip away. I walked back to my hotel in the dark, expecting to be picked up and deported at any moment. The driver showed up the next day to get his helmet and I set out to figure out what I had seen the night before from the other side of the border.

Northern Ireland: On the 12th of July, as the Orange Order marched through the Ardoyne, a Catholic enclave, the Sheriff of Belfast gave two young journalists a running commentary of the riots below. Before that day, I had no idea Belfast had a sheriff. Judging from his physical condition and his level of inebriation, the posting wasn’t that important.

Kenya: At the height of the election crisis, authorities shut down all access to Nairobi’s downtown core. The only people allowed into the city were foreign journalists. Our driver, George, took full advantage of free reign on the city’s usually gridlocked arteries. As he tore through the streets, his two passengers were quiet, overwhelmed by the sight of a normally teeming African metropolis sitting silent and empty. Looking back, what we witnessed was beyond surreal.

Bolivia: Arriving in La Paz at 2am I was the only person on the flight whose driver didn’t show up. With no taxi in sight, I was able to hitch a ride in to the city with a helpful group of evangelical Christians from Philadelphia. During the bus trip into the city, recruitment attempts began. “God sent you to us,” a woman informed me, staring weirdly into my eyes. I politely listened, pretended not to be uncomfortable, and smiled a lot. As dark and inappropriate humour ran wild in my mind, a heavy bag fell off the rack above me, landing on my foot. As the pain blinded me, even I had to wonder.

Kenya: Friday night on the road on the outskirts of Mombasa. As the sun began to set, the haze from the garbage fires mixed with the fading light, turning the sky a striking shade of purple. By then, that smokey air was my normal. The driver, a tiny Somali man, sped through the crowds. From the back seat I thought about the people back home, probably excited for a Friday night. A man ran into the car’s path, I was sure we would hit him but he sprung past the collision like a deer on a back road in Canada. My eye caught the driver’s in the rear view mirror, even in the fading light I noticed his dilated pupils. He reached for his bag of khat. I looked out the window, realizing that I truly had no idea where I was and that I hadn’t thought about where I was going for a very long time.

Brazil: The only person who spoke English at the Rio de Janeiro bar I walked in to was man named Joca. He wore a red dress, high heels, a wig and heavy makeup. We struck up a conversation and I spent hours being introduced to the lives of a parade of gangsters, drug dealers, prostitutes and heavily-tattooed MMA fighters. That night I learned much about the imperfection of living in Rio and the kindness that, to me, defines that city.

Kenya: In Nairobi, I watched from the front seat of a beat-up Kia station wagon taxi as the driver wildly (and bravely) drove through flaming tire roadblocks during my first day of the post-election crisis. The driver, a slight middle-aged man named Daniel, later explained that he didn’t stop because he wasn’t sure who had put up the roadblocks and what would happen to us if he stopped. He told me that, as he drove through the flames, he had prayed that there weren’t large stones concealed by the tires. From that point on I called him every time I needed a taxi.

Colombia: Having a long conversation in a Cartagena restaurant with two Colombian prostitutes via the translation apps on our phones. They were cautiously happy that 50 years of war looked to be coming to an end but worried that the economy had bet too heavily on the oil and gas industry. If the government didn’t shield its economy from exposure to the price of oil and revenues dropped, one of the women argued via Google translate, the cocaine cartels would have space to position themselves to fill the void and there would be pain on the horizon for everyone.

Kenya: Talking to two high-ranking Kenyan politicians at a Nairobi military base during the height of the post election violence. Both smirked evilly as they explained that there was no organized violence to denounce, their eyes telling a very different story from what they said. A few blocks away, behind a garage, a burned-out bus that had been packed with people fleeing the violence sat quietly. The day before, the bus had been stopped at a checkpoint and set alight. Everyone on board had died.

DRC: Writing a story on a hillside in Rumangabo, I was startled by a heavy smack to the back of my head. Turning around to see what it was, I realized it was the grenade part of an RPG held by a curious soldier peering over my shoulder.

Uganda: Arriving at Entebbe airport outside Kampala, exhausted by weeks on the road, I came to the conclusion that I was being asked for a bribe at immigration. Well used to the process, I began to negotiate. I explained to the two officers that I was a freelancer with limited funds. The officers kindly explained that not all African officials were corrupt and that, in their eyes, it wasn’t a crime to be poor. Embarrassed, I apologized profusely. As I left the office, they graciously wished me good luck and suggested that I get some sleep.

South Africa: I spent a long night talking Zimbabwean politics with an exiled group of opposition leaders in the back room of a Johannesburg dive bar called Ratz. It was an striking inside glimpse inside the absurdity of life under Robert Mugabe. They talked about living with the constant threat of imprisonment or assassination. They talked about their colleagues who had died gruesome deaths. One of them laughed as he told me that “you get used to it.” I think of them sometimes when people I know in Canada use the word “security” when talking about the new apartment building they just moved in to.

DRC: Door-stopping the warlord Bosco Ntaganda in Goma. Known as “the Terminator,” Ntaganda, having just taken control of the main rebel group in North Kivu had dropped out of sight. Everyone wanted to talk to him. In Goma, someone told me where they thought he might be staying so I went to the house and rang the doorbell. The woman who answered the door menacingly told me that he wasn’t home at the moment. I asked her if she could take my number and ask him him call me. She did. He didn’t.  Ntaganda, not known for his intellectual prowess, had a very short run as a rebel leader and is now at the Hague facing a war crimes trial.

Ireland: On the street in Cork, I noticed streets being blocked off by large men in leather jackets and sunglasses. There were no uniformed police in sight. I asked around and found out that it was the parade to commemorate the Easter Rising.  I followed the crowd as it wound through the city. I blindly turned a corner and almost bowled over Martin McGuinness, the former IRA commander. He grimly looked at me and stuck out his hand. I shook it and we chatted for a while. He told me he had been to Toronto. I told him I too had been to Toronto. We didn’t really bond. As we spoke, a shiver ran through me. There was something about his eyes. Never have I met someone so hard or so cold.

South Africa: Sunday morning on 7th Avenue in Melville, Johannesburg. In my last days in the city I walked to the local store to buy the Sunday paper. Coming out of the store, my guard was down. A man appeared from around a corner. I noticed his knife. Without hesitation or thought, I grabbed the rolled-up Sunday Times newspaper in my back pocket and hit him squarely on top of the head. He gave me a shocked look and fled back around the corner. No words were exchanged between us. I walked home and read the paper over coffee on a balcony overlooking the city. I rarely mentioned the story until years later. Such was life in Johannesburg.

Kenya: The raid on Kibera started without warning. Soldiers and policemen charged down the hill. We tore after them, hearts pounding, adrenaline coursing. They swarmed the slum, beating people with sticks and firing tear gas. People scurried to escape. A woman sat against a shack with her children, all of them terrified and crying. An elderly man completely covered in mud crouched in a corner, almost camouflaged. Another man appeared behind us, dramatically scraping his machete along the paved part of the road. Tear gas streamed in thick columns out of tin shack doors. Shots were fired.

An hour later, at a nearby hospital, I stood in an operating room, having brazenly invited myself in. A man named Joffery clung to life, shot through the throat. Later, his friend would tell me that the two men had been standing outside their homes watching the raid when a policeman came around a corner and opened fire. He was a religious man who kept his politics to himself, the friend told me. He could think of no reason for the shooting. The doctor worked furiously. As I stood by, the patient’s eyes opened and fixed on me. At that moment he died. I was immediately overcome with guilt: An African man who had surely never left his country, his last image, an uninvited white stranger. The doctor, sensing my shame, grabbed the body and sat it up, showing me the entry and exit wounds. I turned to leave. Without malice, the doctor challenged me: “Don’t forget why you are here,” he said.

Behind the hospital, at the concrete emergency room dock, colleagues waited. The mood in the group was calm, almost content. It was as if being together reminded us, despite the chaos around us, how lucky we were. A phone buzzed, something was up, back to the cars and into the city.

DRC: The lawn furniture on the front lines for the interview was carefully staged. Three chairs for the FARDC commanders faced by one for me. The security detail formed a circle around us, guns at the ready. I arrived and was seated, the commanders arrived and sat opposite me. I reached for a digital recorder, guns trained on me, soldiers yelled, I froze. “No,” a soldier warned me, face serious. The interview started. Five minutes. Talk about the state of the conflict. All business. The senior commander gave me news no one else had, in the morning there would be a ceasefire. I could see action in the background as we spoke and tried to make sense of it. The five minutes passed quickly, I started to wrap things up.

As I prepared to leave, the senior commander stopped me. “You’re from Montreal?” he prodded. “I am,” I replied. “Can you help me get a visa?” he asked. “I’ve always wanted to study at L’Universite de Montreal.” I laughed, explaining that I wasn’t sure I had that power. 30 minutes later we were still there, all sitting around. The guns had dropped. The security detail sat on the ground. They peppered me with questions about life in Canada. They couldn’t understand how I wasn’t married, how I had no children, why I was, by choice, in such a miserable country. In return, I told funny stories about a place I’d not seen for a very long time. For a half hour it seemed as though we all forgot we were 50 yards from war.

Kenya/Somalia border region: The Somali woman was telling me off. I was definitely being scolded. I had no idea what I had done to her. I looked around the desert scrub for help explaining my offense. It was teeming with people, everyone focused on one thing, water (and more specifically the lack of it.) People positioned themselves and their animals near the well the NGO had flown us up to see. I looked back, the woman was still yelling at me, her eyes blazing with indignation. The NGO man came by and started to laugh. “She says you’re upsetting her camels. They’ve never seen anyone who looks like you.”

It was a fair point.

Kenya: In the back recesses of the cholera tent she lay quietly on the canvas bed. An aid worker introduced us. She sat up, wrapped a blanket around her midsection and quietly answered questions. She was in pain and weak with exhaustion but her dignity and honesty eclipsed her affliction a thousand times over. She knew she would get better now that she was at the clinic but it took time for the antibiotics to kick in and the bacteria was still ravaging her body. As we spoke, neither of us acknowledged the bursts of waste leaving her body, passing through the hole in the cot she sat on and into the white plastic bucket below. As I left I went to shake her hand. It was her who reminded me that we were forbidden to touch each other in case we passed on the infection. Of all the people I’ve ever met, she was the strongest.

Canada: I was beyond tired when I arrived in Montreal. I sat in the Irish pub at an impromptu welcome home party. It was a Friday night and the place was full. 24 hours before I had sat in a Nairobi cafe with a friend. Out of the blue there was a commotion and the familiar sounds of launching teargas canisters caught my ear. The staff sprang in to action, running to pull down the heavy metal shutters to keep the approaching mob out. I reacted instinctively, grabbing my camera bag and sprinting to duck under the shutters before they closed. Anything but being trapped inside while something happened outside. I looked back to shout goodbye to my friend, she was laughing at me, she understood.

At the pub on the other side of the world I wondered how I could explain any of it to anyone there. I looked down at my boots, I could see the red dirt that still coated them. I knew there was nothing I could ever really say that would tell the story right.

Haiti: The 2010 earthquake knocked everything down. To see it was beyond overwhelming. The airport was no exception. With the main building destroyed, the departure terminal was relocated to a nearby warehouse. I arrived for my flight with time to spare. I joined the huge line up that had formed outside the doors. An hour later, it hadn’t moved- I was still a hundred people from the doors, let alone the gate. I began to worry. A man approached me and explained that, for a fee, I could bypass the line. I agreed, rationalizing that the entitlement would be justified by not having to pay for another flight. I assumed he would lead me to a back door. I forgot I was in Haiti. There, things are done differently. He grabbed my arm and started pulling me, barging ahead, pushing people out of his way, loudly fighting with anyone who protested. He pushed an obese woman, she pushed him back. They yelled. As we bulled by her, she grabbed my other arm and followed.

Inside the terminal it was chaos, no lines, everyone pushing. It was everyone for themselves. I looked back, the fat woman still had her death-grip on my arm. She trailed a massive suitcase and two kitchen chairs with her other hand. I noted her strength. We made it to the check-in desk and I gave some money to my “guide.” He looked sour and demanded more. Sensing he’d got all he could from me, he turned to the fat lady. She looked at him with disgust and refused. “It’s not for me,” he whined in Creole. “It’s for my mother, she’s very sick.” The woman laughed. “I don’t care. If you’re mother looks like you, then she is very ugly.” The man did his best to look shocked as she continued. “Actually, I HATE your mother. I hope she dies.” To this day, there is not a collective sense of humour that I enjoy more than Haiti’s.

A war with many fronts: Congo conflict enters a new phase

By James Stairs

Goma – Earlier in the week, Commander John Tshibango looked across a deep valley to the front lines of the war 10 kilometres outside Goma in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Heavily armed soldiers moved in and out of the thick trees on the opposite hillside.

Tshibango, 35, commander of the 18th Brigade of the Congolese army (FARDC) leads what was, until Tuesday, the last line of defense for government troops outside the regional capital.

Across the valley were soldiers of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), General Laurent Nkunda’s rebel army, which has been fighting the government since 2004.

‘We all have rebel roots in this country,’ Tshibango said, shrugging his shoulders. ‘I don’t see why we just don’t just collaborate?’

His words turned out to be prophetic.

Two days later, the war took a dramatic turn when around 4000 Rwandan troops crossed the border and launched an offensive against Hutu rebels who fled to the DR Congo during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, organizing under the banner of the Forces Democratic de la Liberation de Rwanda (FDLR).

Rwandan troops leave Eastern DRC weeks after launching a surprise operation in Eastern Congo.
Rwandan troops in Eastern DRC weeks after launching a surprise operation in Eastern Congo.

By the end of the week, Nkunda was in custody in Rwanda, reportedly facing extradition to the DR Congo, and bitter enemies were preparing to work side by side in a joint offensive against the FDLR.

The development has stunned Congolese citizens and analysts alike.

The dominoes began to fall in early January when Bosco Ntaganda, the CNDP chief of staff, claimed that he had removed Nkunda as head of the rebel army. The general, Ntaganda said, was blocking the signing of a peace agreement.

Nkunda’s spokespeople denounced the declaration. In Goma rumours flew of violent purges against Ntaganda and his supporters.

But when Ntaganda strode into Goma’s Ihusi hotel a week ago, flanked by several senior CNDP commanders, officials from the Congolese army, and tellingly, James Kabarebe, the head of the Rwandan army, the situation became even more unclear.

The group announced that it was prepared to abandon the rebellion and work with the government in exchange for peace.

Pareco, a pro-government rebel group, announced the next day that it too had ceased fighting and was placing its forces under the control of FARDC commanders.

The only leader not to fall in to line was Nkunda.

The notoriously eloquent general has been silent since Ntaganda’s challenge, leading many to question if he was still in control of his army.

The CNDP rebellion launched in 2004 when Nkunda, an ethnic Tutsi, split from the Congolese army and retreated, with 4000 soldiers, to dense forests in the Eastern Congo.

Nkunda claims he is fighting to protect the Congolese Tutsi population from the FDLR – many of whom carried out the 1994 genocide of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

The CNDP also demanded that Congolese president Joseph Kabila cancel billions of dollars in mineral access contracts signed with China, claiming that they were unfair to the Congolese people.

Since August, the rebels captured large swathes of the Eastern Congo, reigniting a ten-year war that has killed up to five million Congolese and displaced over one million.

The general accused the Congolese government of failing to uphold the 2008 Goma Peace Agreement, which agreed to disarm the FDLR

Nkunda appeared to be ascendant, even going so far as to muse publicly about a march on the Congolese capital of Kinshasa.

But Ntaganda’s rebellion weakened his authority and when the Rwandan army crossed the border Tuesday at Kibumba, heading North towards CNDP positions, confusion reigned.

The Congolese army erected roadblocks several kilometres outside Goma and blocked UN peace keepers, humanitarian workers and media from traveling towards Rutshuru, 65 km away.

The reason why became clear Thursday when Rwandan and Congolese troops attacked Nkunda’s headquarters in Bunagana, on the Rwanda/Congolese border.

FARDC soldiers await an intergration ceremony in Rumangabo, DRC
FARDC soldiers in Rumangabo, DRC

In a joint statement issued Friday, the two countries said that Nkunda was over-run and had fled into Rwanda, where he was arrested late Thursday night. He was reportedly being transferred to the Rwandan capital Kigali Friday.

The events mark more uncertainty for the Congolese war, said Kodi Muzong, an associate fellow in the Africa programme at the UK-based Chatham House think tank.

‘The offensive appears to be a hastily planned campaign,’ he said, adding it doesn’t appear to address the fundamental issues of the war, which include illegal mining and the refugee problem.

The FDLR will likely put up a strong fight, Muzong said, meaning that Nkunda’s arrest could be of little relevance to hundreds of thousands of Congolese already weary of war.

Fifteen years later, political wounds still deep over French role in Rwandan genocide

By James Stairs

Kigali (dpa) – A security guard sits behind large metal gates, listening to a radio at the French cultural centre in downtown Kigali. ‘It’s closed,’ he says, a smirk spreading across his face. ‘Not much happening here these days.’

In November, 2006, France and Rwanda cut diplomatic ties as a row between the two countries over France’s role in the 1994 genocide escalated. Since then, the countries have traded sharp words and indictments, accusing each other of revisionism to suit their own agendas.

For Venuste Kayimahe, a Rwandan writer, the building has dark memories that time cannot heal. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says, glancing at the gates and shaking his head, ‘but you’ll understand that I cannot go into that building.’

For over 20 years, Kayimahe was employed as a technician at the cultural centre.

On April 6, 1994, Rwanda descended into mayhem in the aftermath of the airplane crash that killed the president, Juvenal Habyarimana.

Within hours, Kigali was in chaos. Hutu radicals incited their supporters with radio broadcasts, instructing them to exterminate Tutsis.

When the killing was over, as many as 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were dead.

Kayimahe was at the centre with his wife and two of his children when the genocide began. His five other children were on the other side of Kigali.

Outside, on the main street, horrific scenes began to unfold. Gangs roamed the streets demanding identification cards, abducting and killing Tutsis.

Up the hill, the Milles Collines hotel, made famous by the 2004 Hollywood movie Hotel Rwanda, was under siege, packed with terrified refugees.

Just below, the infamous Saint Famille church, also filled with people seeking asylum. Shortly after, it became the site of large-scale massacres.

Its priest, Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, reportedly donned a flak jacket and wielded a pistol as he joined in the killing.

Trapped, Kayimahe was desperate with worry over the fate of his children.

Yet his employers were nowhere to be found. He telephoned his supervisor, Anne Cros, but she ignored his pleas for help.

When she showed up several days later to collect and destroy official documents, she again refused.

Kayimahe would later learn that his 13 year-old daughter had been killed.

French soldiers eventually arrived, but only to evacuate their own nationals, he said. Rwandans were left to themselves.

For days, Kayimahe and his family managed to avoid attacks by hiding in the ceiling of the centre.

They were eventually smuggled out of the country by Belgian troops, concealed under a tarpaulin in the back of a truck.

The horrific images of the time will never leave him, he says.

Rwanda has long accused the French of backing the Hutu militias to maintain their influence in the region. In August, they released a 500-page report detailing France’s complicity.

French troops, the report claimed, were sent to Rwanda during the genocide, not to stop the killing as claimed, but to reinforce the new Hutu regime.

France also trained the militias, was aware that plans for the genocide were being laid and intervened only to facilitate the escape of the killers, the authors said.

Some 33 high-ranking French political and military officials were named, including the late president Francois Mitterrand and former prime minister Dominique de Villepin.

France has levelled accusations of its own. President Paul Kagame’s rebel army, it claims, killed thousands during its campaign to re-take Rwanda.

A 2006 indictment of nine Rwandan leaders by French judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere caused fury in Kigali.

The French court alleged that Tutsi rebels, led by Kagame, were responsible for shooting down Habyarimana’s airplane.

The fact that French citizens died in the crash gives them jurisdiction, the court said.

In November, Rose Kabuye, Kagame’s director of state protocol and a former officer in the Rwandan Patriotic Front, was arrested at a German airport and extradited to France.

The former mayor of Kigali was charged under French anti-terrorism laws and agreed to face trial. The Rwandan government has described the charges as ‘a farce.’

For Kayimahe, seeking justice is the only way to rid himself of the ghosts of the genocide.

He has written extensively about French involvement in the genocide, drawing on the time he spent organizing events at the cultural centre.

‘The French are guilty of crimes in Rwanda,’ he says.

DRC’s murky mining trade feels pinch of global pressures


They are both the bounty and the curse of a war-torn nation: rich Congolese mineral deposits, observers say, are the seeds of recovery for the humanitarian disaster that has engulfed the nation since 1998.

But many say exploitation of these deposits is also driving the bloody conflict that has left five million dead and more than a million displaced despite the official end of war in 2003.

Gold, columbite-tantalite (or coltan), wolframite and cassiterite — minerals principally used in the electronics industry — are abundant in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

“At the moment it is a free-for-all in the Congolese mining trade,” says Carina Tertsakian of Global Witness, a United Kingdom-based body that works to expose the relationships between the exploitation of natural resources and armed conflicts.

“You have different armed groups controlling mines throughout the region,” she adds.

A 2008 United Nations report found that “several mineral exporting firms could be acting as fronts for the National Congress for the Defence of the People [CNDP] interests”.

The same report found that the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) collect millions of United States dollars a year through control of several mines.

Congolese government troops (FARDC) have also been implicated.

“[The UN] believes that it is not in the interest of certain FARDC commanders to end the conflict in eastern DRC as long as their units are able to deploy to, and profit from, mining areas,” the report read.

Tertsakian agrees.

“Definitely, the general chaos in the region is in the interest of all the armed groups,” she says.

Even rogue elements of the UN peacekeeping force, Monuc, have been exposed as being involved — trading UN guns for illegal minerals.

The situation in DRC is relentlessly fluid, as the arrest on Thursday of CNDP leader Laurent Nkunda and sudden cooperation between Rwanda and the Congolese government to flush out the FDLR have proven.

But these efforts may prove to be in vain as long as armed groups, who claim to be fighting to defend their own ethnic groups, have the motivation of huge profits.

The UN believes the government agency responsible for certifying the minerals “grossly undervalues” both the quality and the quantity of exports and that large-scale smuggling operations are ongoing.

The ongoing humanitarian crisis in the region has brought attention to the links between the mining industry and the war, Tertsakian says, but there is no evidence that the trade has slowed.

Congolese minerals are now being referred to as “blood minerals” in many circles.

The term enrages Alexis Makabuza, a mineral trader and a director of the Goma-based Global Mining Company.

“Do you see blood dripping from these minerals?” he asks dramatically, pointing to a high stack of bags packed with cassiterite.

The minerals in the bags have been purchased by a Canadian company and are scheduled to be shipped to Malaysia for processing.

Much of DRC’s mineral trade is operated by poor miners who extract the minerals by hand and sell it to traders.

Makabuza’s company acts as a middleman, purchasing the raw minerals from the traders, processing it and selling it on to the global market.

“We work with international buyers and they are being put under pressure,” he says. “When people say we deal in blood minerals and that we fuel the war, it has meaning.”

He claims that the minerals he buys do not fund the war, offering up piles of certifications and lists of names, but admits he really doesn’t know where the minerals he buys originate.

“I can’t know every person that enters my business,” he argues.

However, Tertsakian believes there is no excuse for not knowing the provenance of minerals.

“If [traders] really don’t know, they should go out and find out,” she says.

Identification of conflict minerals, Makabuza reasons, is ultimately the role of the Congolese government.

“Show us the area”, where the conflict is fuelled by the mineral trade, “and we’ll sacrifice that area,” he says.

In its report, the UN proposed drawing up such a map. It also suggested international buyers employ due diligence by “publicly disclosing evidence that would demonstrate that they are not knowingly purchasing tainted minerals.” Global Mining Company was not named in the UN findings.

Strengthening the Congolese government’s enforcement capabilities are the best way to tackle the problem, Tertsakian says, praising the UN Security Council’s December extension of the peacekeeping mandate.

Falling commodity prices have also put pressure on the industry.

Makabuza says his profits have halved in six months and if the trend continues his business will be at risk.

“If we don’t export minerals the [provincial] economy will collapse,” he says. “Eastern DR Congo is living off minerals.” — Sapa-dpa

Rwanda cattle-herd becomes symbol of recovery after genocide

James Stairs, dpa

Kigali_(dpa) _ At the agricultural research station in Songa, nestled in the hills of the Southern Huye province of Rwanda, hundreds of cows graze amidst soft breezes under the warm afternoon sun.

“This is where it all begins,” Jean-Damascene Rwemalika, the director of research at the facility says, pointing to the hills behind him.

The herd is part of the Rwandan government’s plan to rebuild the economy destroyed during the 1994 genocide, in which around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.

It is a project they hope will help drag the country from the bottom of the world’s economies into a modern and prosperous state.

“Everything here was destroyed during the genocide,” Rwemalika says. “The people working here were murdered and all the cattle were killed.”

The facility was targeted during the early days of the genocide because the land was once owned by a Tutsi king.

Concurrent to the human tragedy, 90 per cent of the country’s cattle were slaughtered – largely for food in a collapsed infrastructure but also as a part of an attempt to eradicate the Tutsi cow-rearing culture.

Before the genocide, Rwanda’s national herd stood up at around one million. It was almost completely made up of Ankole cows, the traditional Rwandan breed.

Throughout Rwanda’s troubled history, cows have played a central role.

While Hutus and Tutsis historically co-existed in Rwanda, the onset of colonial rule, first by Germany and later Belgium, created a division between the two tribes that would ultimately spiral out of control.

The Europeans favoured the Tutsi minority, whom they considered to be closer to the Caucasian race, using them to control the Hutu majority.

In reality, it was difficult to distinguish between Hutu and Tutsi, but colonial authorities decided to determine ethnicity along the lines of wealth.

Anyone owning more than ten cows and having a long, pointed nose was identified as Tutsi, everyone else was Hutu. Ethnic identity cards were issued – something that would later be used in the slaughter.

“People were able to move back and forth between the two tribes depending on their wealth,” Freddy Mutanguha, the director of the Kigali Genocide Centre, explains, recounting the story of two brothers, one designated Tutsi and killed in the genocide and the other Hutu, who survived.

In the aftermath of the genocide, as the new leaders of the country were faced with rebuilding a shattered state, they once again turned their attention to Rwanda’s cows.

“It was a huge task,” Theogene Rutagwenda, Rwanda’s chief veterinarian, says. “The war had destroyed everything. The country could not feed itself.”

At first, the return of Tutsi exiles who had fled purges by Hutu militants in the 1950s seemed like good news as they brought almost 800,000 new cattle with them, virtually replacing the slaughtered herd.

But areas of the country were over-run. Many headed for the vast Agakera national park in Eastern Rwanda, resulting in an environmental catastrophe as the park’s grasslands were destroyed.

They also brought disease and for five years the country’s veterinarians fought to contain one epidemic after another.

“We had everything – from mad cow disease to anthrax,” Rutagwenda recounts.

At the same, the authorities researched introducing foreign breeds like Jersey, Friesen and Xebu into the herd to boost production.

Eventually, the herd stabilized and a massive artificial insemination project was launched to address the lingering food crisis.

The Ankole cow, Rutagwenda explains, holds cultural value to Rwandans but simply can’t produce enough milk to feed a country in desperate need.

Jean-Baptiste Mutabazi, stands in his small farmyard 20 kilometres outside the town of Gicumbi. Two cross-breed cows graze nearby.

“I used to get two litres of milk per day,” he says. “Today I get 12 litres- enough to feed my family and sell some in the market.”

Currently, the vast majority of the Rwandan population lives in the countryside and generates income from subsistence farming.

In the United Nations’ 2008 Human Development Index, which charts the quality of life in countries around the world, Rwanda ranks 14th from the bottom.

Since 1999, the Rwandan government has distributed thousands of pregnant cows to people like Muzabazi.

Anyone receiving a cow is required to pass the offspring on to neighbours to promote good will and to share the wealth.

The hope, Rwandan officials say, is that the added income will allow farmers the resources to help in educating their children.

In turn, the government is hoping that the children will eventually migrate into cities towards professional careers, helping to alleviate the pressure and conflict caused by the scarcity of land in the tiny country. dpa js ml emc

Deutsche Presse Agentur:

Copyright (c) dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

A heavy weight – treating the mental trauma of war displaced

By: James Stairs

Goma_(dpa) _ Before the rebels came, Justine Bengehya and Simwerai Muhanaka lived quietly with their seven children outside the Congolese town of Masisi, 50 kilometres west of the provincial capital Goma.

He was a farm labourer; she stayed home to mind the children.

Congolese IDPs in Eastern DRC
Justine Bengehya (left) is one hundreds of thousands Congolese IDPs in Eastern DRC displaced by recent fighting.

Everything changed for the couple on November 29, when the city of 33,000 was captured by rebel Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda and his National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP).
The Congolese army, which had controlled the city, fled. The CNDP then began operations to flush out pro-government rebels.
“They came at night and made people open their doors,” Bengehya, 40, says, sitting on a concrete block in central Goma amidst the afternoon bustle.

“They were looking for enemies. My husband told them we were not involved but they didn’t listen.”

Bengehya watched in horror as a soldier shot her husband in the face several times. The 40 year-old Muhanaka died on the floor of his home.
“I had 200 US dollars under my skirt so I gave it to them to let us go,” Bengehya says.
Outside, neighbours were running wildly in the street amidst the shooting.
“So many of us were killed,” Bengehya says. “We were just so terrified.”
The family joined others fleeing the violence, but despite travelling by night and avoiding checkpoints, the group was attacked by CNDP soldiers on the second day.
The refugees scattered into a nearby forest. During the panic, Bengehya’s four-year old daughter, Baraka, was grabbed. When the rebels moved on, she rushed to find her lost child.
Baraka was lying by the side of the road, badly injured. She had been raped by the soldiers.
“When I found her, she was bleeding so much,” Bengehya says, her eyes frantic with grief, tears streaming down her cheeks. “She died in my arms. We buried her beside the road under some stones. We had to leave because of my other children.”
The group weathered several other attacks over the two weeks it took to reach the relative safety of Goma, the provincial capital. After arriving they disbanded and Bengehya wandered the streets with her children before being taken in by a local family.
There are an estimated 350,000 refugees currently living in Goma, most of them displaced by fighting that intensified in August.
Hundreds of thousands more live along the routes between Congolese trading towns and in massive refugee camps dotted throughout the country and operated by the international community.
The numbers in the camps mushroomed after fighting ramped up in October after Nkunda accused the Congolese government of failing to act on the 2008 Goma Accords, which prioritized disarming Hutu militias who crossed the border during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
CNDP forces have since captured large swathes of eastern DR Congo, sending hundreds of thousands fleeing once again five years after the official end of the 1998-2003 war that killed over five million people and displaced over one million.
After reaching the outskirts of Goma, home of the United Nations peacekeeping command post and the nerve centre of the international aid community, Nkunda halted his advance.
Heavily fortified positions surrounded the city until Wednesday when a dramatic and unexpected shift threw chaos into the region.
Rwanda, which had been accused of managing the war through its support of Nkunda, suddenly invaded its larger neighbour. .
With the consent of the Congolese government, 4,000 Rwandan soldiers poured across the border under the cover of darkness, announcing an offensive on the Hutu militia.
Access to the military operation has been restricted by Congolese and Rwandan troops. Journalists and international observers have been turned away or detained by heavily armed soldiers at several checkpoints on routes leading to the heaviest fighting.
In another shocking twist, Nkunda, an ethnic Tutsi closely aligned with the Rwandan government, was arrested by Rwandan troops and taken to Kigali, where he is currently reportedly in custody. The general had been facing opposition from within the CNDP and had recently cancelled several press engagements.
Neither the Rwandans nor the Congolese governments have commented on the arrest.
Amidst the chaos, the news means little to Bengehya and the other refugees, most of who are loyal to the Congolese government and distrust the Rwandans.
“I just want to find food today and to go home soon,” she says.
Humanitarian agencies estimate that hundreds of thousands more have been raped or sexually assaulted since 1998 and according to local health officials, most refugees – like Bengehya – have suffered severe mental trauma.
Ten kilometres from Goma at the Kibati II refugee camp, Justine Najua welcomes visitors with a warm smile into a small tent tucked into the back corner of the camp’s health compound.
The tent is called a Maison d’Ecoute (Listening House) and until Wednesday, was less than one kilometre from the front lines of the war.
“This is where people can come if their troubles overwhelm them,” the 31-year-old clinician says.
The tent is operated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and is on the front lines of a major humanitarian effort to address the mental trauma caused by the war.
“The people who come through here have so many problems – many have no homes, no food, their families have been killed or their kids have disappeared,” Najua says.
“We have people who are so traumatized but have to put aside their own problems – some even forget that they themselves were raped,” she adds.
The ICRC offers counselling and referrals to psychiatric teams for the more serious cases.
“If we don’t intervene, the problems can get much worse,” Najua says.
Najua says that women who have been sexually assaulted are often rejected by their communities, further compounding the trauma.
Since November, the Maison d’Ecoute has treated over 160 cases of mental trauma. An estimated 40 to 70 per cent of refugees live in public spaces or with host families and getting aid to them has proven next to impossible.
Care for the mentally traumatized will have to last for years after the conflict ends, Najua says.
“I hear terrible things,” Najua says with a tired laugh. “Sometimes I feel like I am a secondary victim.”